‘A Road (Opening)’
On Sun June’s ‘Years’ LP
words by tom johnson
I’m not sure if it was a dream come true, or just a promise kept. We’d always talked about it, he and I, best friends from school, from the days of summers stretched-out, cassette compilations and sleepovers, through first loves and first hangovers, to the tangled knot of adulthood, to the records that made us, to the dreams that fell apart. Since those early days, from the films we watched, from the songs we sung, we made a promise to travel America; wide-eyed ambitions of the top-down, the open road, the great voices of old crackling through the stereo.
As our situations changed, as the birthdays ticked by, we wondered if we’d left it too late, too long. Occasionally we spoke about it like it was something we’d already lost, but mostly the clarity remained. We’d made a promise. We would see it through.
And then it happened. Circumstances aligned, as they have a way of doing, and after so many years, all those late-night mumblings, all that gut-thrown yearning was coming alive. We had found time. We were making time. Amid the clamour of real-life, amid the messiness of reality, we carved open a space and we worked through the details, ironing out the creases: where we would stay, how we would get there, what great things we wanted to conquer. We ate up the days between, me from the north of the country, him from the south, and in no time we were there, bleary-eyed and alive, sipping birthday whisky, reconvened in Chicago, the whole great country laid out at our feet, golden sparks swirling around us from the electric rush of making good on long-held promises, a dizzying halo of ambition.
For three weeks we journeyed, south and east and north and east once more; Chicago to Nashville, through the Appalachian mountains, through North Carolina and Virginia and Pennsylvania, to end up in New York. As is always the case, there were highs and lows, great rushes to last a lifetime and the grey gaps between that might well fade in the years to come. But, despite out ageing, despite the tiredness of travel, we strived for the buzz, and though we lacked the vigour of youth we still searched for it, and found it sometimes too; on great mountain ranges, in the boot prints of new friends, in the sticky darkness of the edge of towns and often within them.
Tracing a map, halfway through the trip, I realised we would be skirting close to Johnson City and I requested a stop-off, for no other reason than it was the place I shared my name with. As we would come to find a few times along the way, and much like life itself, it’s so easy to craft a simple outline but so much more difficult to colour it in. And so Johnson City appeared, a little beaten and worn, under greying skies and grey brick. I left him on a phone-call back home, and I took a walk around with my headphones, taking photographs and looking for clues in the eyes of strangers. If it was ever to really be my city it had better show itself soon. But it wasn’t to be. I don’t know what I was expecting or looking for, or what I was anticipating, and neither did I find it. An hour later we were on the road once more. A few weeks later we were home once more. A couple of years later and we’re both somewhere else once more. Changed, again; shaken by the winds of the world and the way it works. But we did it and we’ll always have that.
Then Summer 2018 came along, sun-drenched and sweltering, the strangest of seasons, and, with it, the chance to revisit Johnson City; not in actuality but through song, courtesy of Sun June and the fourth track on their quietly miraculous new album. Delicately poised, like the tiniest of movements could break the whole thing in two, their ‘Years’ LP is a stunning exhibition of cadence, a display of the many ways a voice can be used, so much so you wonder quite how it all comes from the same lungs, through the same set of eyes. Sometimes golden and alive (‘Discotheque’, ‘Young’), elsewhere wrapped up in deep yearning, the kind of pure and still desire for things lost, the kind that can shape a day as powerfully as the weather, as the things we grasp for in the silent cavern of our mind.
At the centre of it all sits ‘Johnson City’, three of the most understated minutes found on the record, as transportive for you as it is for me, no doubt, if only for different reasons. Musically it’s both cracked and wisened, like the great songs of old, the songs that America has always found a way of fashioning from its sad and ever-reaching marrow. “Just come home with me tonight,” Laura Colwell gently pleads, that voice hovering somewhere above the sparse percussion, alongside talk of cool breeze and windows, of “coal-black Cadillacs screaming down the West Coast”, her voice tinged with hope and regret, light and dark, curating images of times sort after and forgotten, like the tug of late summer days never letting go.
“The sun don’t go down in Johnson City“, Colwell continues. I know that isn’t the truth. I know the sun sometimes doesn’t find it at all, but the passing of years has a way of changing things, of fading things once known. So it proves to be here, and so I want to follow it anyway. I want to retrace my steps just in case I missed something first time around, in that hour of wandering, back when I could still feel young. Perhaps the truth is I was already too changed to notice. Perhaps it was just never meant to be, as some things just aren’t.
‘Years’ is out now, via Keeled Scales
You can buy it here